11/28/2008

ESSAY: Continuous Innovation

Update: Received a wonderful comment from a user identifying themselves as the Chief Technologist for NASA at Langley, VA. Here's hoping I can help space exploration, if in some small way!

I guess I must be good at this essay thing. They had another writing contest here at work, and I decided to enter. I wasn't really looking to do anything special, just wanted to see for myself if it was a fluke: if it was possible that I could write that well again. I really figured I had no chance, because of course, they wouldn't let me win twice, right?

Well, they did.

This contest was supposed to be about "Innovation." Here's the full essay, along with the announcement email, from the same Global Strategy guy. Plus, some minor mentions from later in the year. Enjoy!

Continuous Innovation


You have two minutes to do something innnovative. 120 seconds. Go.


Can we all be honest with each other here? When you look at the results from your latest campaign and see a click-through rate of .05%, or an open rate of 1.14%, or an average time on site of 00:00:14 with a bounce rate of 85%, you're not excited. Even though these numbers may be well above standard for your client's industry, or average rates for the medium, you can't help but wonder about the majority. The ones that just didn't do what you wanted them to do.

So what happens? You get in the office the next day and flip through your Rolodex of optimization techniques, survey out a 30+ variable testing matrix that would confuse a rocket scientist, and set about to "move the needle." Brief, blow out, build and blast; you manage to make that K.P.I. look a little less S.O.L., and your client is happy to carry on doing the same thing with the same messages in a slightly better looking package. That needle's moved, but that majority? Still there.

So why doesn't this FEEL good? Why doesn't this inspire your work and infuse your day?

Why doesn't this feel Innovative?


90 seconds.


The fact is, a lot of the things we fill our day with are NOT innovative. And really, there's nothing wrong with that - great work relies completely on great execution. An excellent process or cutting-edge idea will be the inspirational equivalent of a blank sheet of paper if it isn't carried out with absolute attention to detail, timing, and budget. The world needs people that do this, and for at least some part of our lives, we all must be one of them.

The problem is we confuse Innovation with The Work. We can't block out 30 minutes on our calendar to just "Innovate." Innovation doesn't generate any discrete deliverable, follow any Visio flow chart process, or wrap itself up neatly into a revenue stream by the end of Q2. Innovation is like a rainbow: ephemeral, beautiful, and impossible to precisely predict.

But, you CAN create the right conditions for it.

Just like we all know that stormy-sunny mix that gives the best opportunity for a solar color gala, we all intrinsically know the circumstances that will foster innovation within our organizations. We know the value of those hallway conversations, the break room areas, the coffee machine (oh YES the coffee machine), the foosball table, the huge whiteboard, the iPod with noise-cancelling headphones. We know those things that don't have a direct return, the stuff that's expensed before the bottom line, the things that usually get axed when numbers need to add up.

We know what fosters innovation - we're just afraid of it.


60 seconds.


The core problem with innovation is that it is rooted in, and generated by the Unknown. We can fertilize and water the field all day long, but ultimately it is innovation that makes a seed become a plant. The fear is that you might throw all your might and resources into a singular project to foster innovative growth and... it doesn't happen. Or worse yet, you take your baby idea out of the incubator and try to introduce it to the real world and guess what? It fails.

You know what we call new ideas that succeed? Innovation.
You know what we call new ideas that don't? Failures.

Under this paradigm, it's easy to see why a project with unclear and uncertain returns would never get off the ground. It's understandable trying your hand at the tried-and-true before ever venturing off into the unknown. When the world is black and white, why would you ever want to put yourself in the red?

And that's your problem.

If you see every new venture, every weird idea, every novel concept as ultimately falling down the plinko machine into one of those two buckets, the risk is always 50-50. You're always that fixed distance away from perceived utter disaster, and you're always going to stay there.

Take a moment and think of the enormous gamut of problems you work with and attempt every day - from a way to remember to pick up the dry cleaning, to some method of resolving conflict with a co-worker, to influencing a new audience to buy your client's product.
The wrong thought is to rank these solutions the same way we would a coin flip - heads/tails, right/wrong, successful/not. We deal in a work that so tightly integrates with the human experience, that of communicating and carrying understanding of a client to groups of other humans. We play on emotion, on aspirations, on cognitive dissonance. So how can we call one idea absolutely innovative, or another absolutely a failure? How can we not appreciate the campaigns that "showed a small ROI" or "did sorta well" for what they are - learning opportunities.


30 seconds.


If asked about his greatness, Edison would tell you about the thousands of ways he discovered how NOT to make a lightbulb. Einstein would tell you about the 42 years of life BEFORE he won his Nobel Prize for Physics. Michael Jordan would tell you about the 26 times he was trusted to take the game-winning shot and MISSED. Greatness only germinates from the ashes of failure. Innovation will only spark after countless ideas are tried, tested, and most are found lacking. The world's Next Big Idea isn't sitting out on the sidewalk like a lost penny - it's hiding behind a veil of missteps, mistakes, and missed opportunities.

The clear fact is that in order to foster innovation in ourselves or in our organization, we need to create a mentality that ALLOWS for failure. We need to build into our campaign plans an aggressive process for correctly identifying results, then extracting every single bit of meaning or understanding from them - both "good" and "bad." This knowledge then needs to feed our future works. This knowledge must be immediately shared within our organization. This knowledge needs to be openly celebrated in front of our clients, to prove how we've positively built from failure and made our partners' money really worth something in the long run.

We need to innovate, or we will become irrelevant. Therefore, we need to fail, or we will never find success. And when we fail, we must intensely scrutinize the results in order to innovate.


Time's up. Did you innovate? Did you fail? How about both.


I am pleased to inform you that our writing contest winner is once again Eric Swayne. Yes, that's right. Eric Swayne. Again.



Well done Eric!



This contest focused on innovation. As direct marketers, innovation is a bit of a strange bedfellow. I mean, we typically focus on a linear approach of testing, learning and then optimizing. Innovation requires new, often lateral thinking, is often inefficient and as Eric rightly points out ...gasp...can actually require failing, maybe even repeatedly, before getting to the Promised Land. And yet now more than ever our ability to innovate as customer obsessed agents on behalf of our clients is the litmus test by which we are judged as true leaders in our space.



Traditional executions across traditional channels, nuanced by creative and offer are simply not working as well as they used to. Consumers demand more...more relevance, more experience, more inspiration, more opportunity to co-create across multiple touch points. Across channels heretofore not even considered media. To truly succeed for our clients we are going to need to be brave, pioneering and yes, perhaps even fail from time to time. Different than many the Rapp way, the way of data igniting creative experiences, of direct marketing sensibilities informing new applications across emerging channels, gives us an unfair advantage. It slides the odds of success to our favor. And I am happy to take any advantage I can get, fair or unfair, on behalf of our clients.



Take the time to read Eric's entry on risk taking, on having the courage of our convictions and on our mandate to innovate as a brand. It is inspiring. Please join me in congratulating Eric on what is quickly becoming the Swayne Writing Contest. (Actually, the entrants are presented to a panel of judges without name!) I encourage all of you to participate in the next iteration and help us crown a new champion. Not to mention win a bunch of money :-)


This next one came from the CEO of all RAPP itself. He CCed our Global President, and the President of North America:

This is really well done Eric. I’d like you, [name witheld] and [name witheld] to trim this down, add a couple of real Rapp examples of innovation and put this on the website blog. This is a very relevant topic.


Thanks Eric.


And here's the blog he was talking about: http://opinion.rapp.com/. I'm working with other amazing luminaries of the RAPP stratosphere to get this live, and I'll let you know here when it's up.

I'm still utterly amazed and honored to win this go-round. The money's nice (VERY nice), but the validation as a writer and strategic thinker is many, many times more valuable. It's mind-boggling and humbling to have a reputation throughout the world-wide stretch of RAPP. I hope I'm afforded many more chances to do this kind of free-form, blue-sky thinking.

1 comment:

Rich Antcliff - Chief Technologist, NASA Langley said...

Excellent article - I will be sharing it with others at NASA.